Family Movie Night: Spinout

free stats

We’ve been having Family Movie Nights on weekends here at chez Alcott. Last weekend it was The Sound of Music, last night it was Monsters, Inc. (which deserves its own in-depth analysis for its ingenious plotting alone), and tonight, for some reason, the kids requested the 1966 Elvis Presley vehicle Spinout.

I have a soft spot in my heart for Elvis Presley movies. Or perhaps a soft spot in my head. They fall into two different categories — ambitious misfires and genial comedies. Some of the genial comedies are truly godawful, horrifying traipses through shopworn cliches (like Blue Hawaii), others are boring, low-budget, threadbare disasters (like Harum Scarum) and then there are a few where budget meets script at just the right level and produces something casual, unassuming and unexpectedly charming, like Spinout.

Elvis’s post-army movies, starting with G.I. Blues, set a format of an inoffensive romantic comedy, something not so interesting that it gets in the way of the movie’s true purpose, which is to deliver footage of Elvis Presley singing, dancing and kissing girls. Unlike movies like King Creole or Flaming Star, where Elvis attempts to actually "play" a "character," the post-G.I. Blues Elvis movie simply present Elvis playing someone very much like himself and allow him to, if not "relax" exactly, at least play to his strengths as an actor, which are, unfortunately, limited. And so a small genre was created, the "Elvis Presley Movie," three of them made every year for ten years like clockwork, these sorts of "vacation comedies" where Elvis shows up in some semi-exotic location, sings some songs, drives a car, dives off a cliff, sails a boat, kisses a lot of girls, and, more often than not, moves on.

(Elvis Presley had such a successful career at making "Elvis Presley Movies" that I’m surprised that a similar genre has never been attempted with other singing stars. The Beatles tried one before they realized it was not for them, and Prince made a go of it, but why was there no series of "David Bowie Movies" or "Madonna Movies" or "Nine Inch Nails Movies?" Am I the only one who wanted to see Trent Reznor and his band have to tangle with wacky scuba-diving hippies while trying to find sunken treasure?)

In Spinout, which lies smack in the middle of the Elvis Presley Movie output, Elvis plays Mike McCoy, an apparently well-known race-car driver who is also a nightclub-level singing star. His pit crew, a team of loveable goofs, is also his band. Okay — if that premise is too ridiculous for you, then you’ll never enjoy an Elvis Presley Movie. One of the sly tricks that the Elvis Presley Movie plays on its audience is that it casts Elvis as someone who is hugely talented, but completely disinterested in fame and fortune — if anything, the opposite. The Elvis Presley Movie casts Elvis as someone who everyone else in the world wants to be rich and famous, while all he wants out of life is the ability to move on to the next town, kiss as many girls as possible and pursue the activities he enjoys. And so, in Spinout, when every character in the plot knows exactly who Mike McCoy, anonymous race-car driver and low-level nightclub talent is, the audience is meant to understand that everyone else sees that they’re dealing with Elvis Presley, it’s only Elvis who seems in denial.

I would not confuse Spinout with King Lear, or even As You Like It, and yet, last night was my first viewing of the movie as a full-time professional screenwriter, and I was surprised by how well the script hung together — much more so than the dreary, depressing Blue Hawaii or the herky-jerky, scattershot Viva Las Vegas! It works as a romantic comedy, the songs are good (for what they are) and actually help develop the plot (a comparative rarity in the Elvis filmography), and a lot of the acting isn’t bad in a mid-sixties sit-com kind of way. Shelley Fabares is no Ann Margret, but she holds her own on the screen against Elvis, which is no mean feat. (Elvis put her in two more movies, and a number of other cast membes, including Will Hutchins, Jack Mullaney and Jimmy Hawkins, all turn up in other Elvis Movies.)

(There is no profit in comparing Elvis Movies to "real movies," any more than there is comparing James Bond movies to "real movies" — they are a genre unto themselves, which becomes painfully apparent when one watches Elvis try to leap into a genre other than his own, like when he tries to become Clint Eastwood in Charro! — oy.)

So Mike McCoy is pursued by three women — spoiled rich girl Cynthia Foxhugh, best-selling author Diana St. Clair, and drummer Les (who has no last name). Cynthia is the daughter of Howard Foxhugh of Foxhugh Motors, and apparently knows about Mike both through his work on the racing circuit and by his nightclub act, both of which stir her loins big time. Diana knows about Mike who knows how, but is studying him for research purposes for a book she’s writing on "the perfect man." Les knows about Mike because she plays drums for him every night.

Howard Foxhugh (Cynthia’s father) wants Mike to drive his new car, the Foxhugh 5, in The Big Race coming up, and so uses his daughter as a lure to get Mike interested in his car. Diana, thinking herself pretty hot stuff (she is a model of mid-sixties sexologist, part Helen Gurley Brown, part Shere Hite), confidently schedules her marriage to Mike as part of the publicity campaign for the book she’s working on — she will find the perfect man, and then bag him. Poor Les, meanwhile, dresses in the band’s uniforms as is thought of as "one of the boys" in spite of repeatedly throwing herself at Mike. That Spinout can take this lurid stew of sexual cruelty and make it into a blithe romp is something of an achievement in itself.

What does Mike want? Mike wants to drive his car, play his music, have a bunch of one-night stands, and move on. All around him, women want love and commitment and marriage, all of which gives Mike the heebie-jeebies — he hallucinates Mendellsohn every time one of the principals kisses him. What shall he do? The stakes, somehow, keep rising — Mike finds himself attracted to Cynthia in spite of her spoiled-rich-girl-ness, Diana seems to have him hooked and netted without his consent, and Les keeps scheming to keep his life derailed so that she can have him to herself.

None of this, of course, is remotely believable.  But then, neither is As You Like It.  Elvis even acknowledges the ridiculous ending in a kind of embarrassed shrug (pictured above) and a look that says "Don’t look at me, I didn’t write it."  Its lack of verisimilitude does not prevent it from being an enjoyable insight into the dark corners of the adolescent American male mind (which is exactly the level my son Sam, 7, enjoyed it — Elvis doesn’t want to get married, and Sam doesn’t want to get married either.  He was right there with Elvis as he traversed this minefield of attachment).

(Sam, just let me add here, has a natural eye for cinematic conventions.  During a fake-looking exterior scene where we’re supposed to be worried about whether Elvis will kiss a girl or not, Sam blurts out "Wait, they’re indoors, right?  This is a set, isn’t it?  And look, they’re supposed to be dining by candlelight, but there’s all this light coming from somewhere, there are, like, electric lights off-camera, aren’t there?  And those crickets in the background, were those on the set when they shot the scene, or did they put those in later, with, like, computers or something?")

Which made me wonder: where are the musicals for men? The genre seems to have given up hope of ever attracting men to it (Sweeney Todd notwithstanding). And it occurred to me, what a perfect formula for a date movie: take a star that every woman on the planet wants to have sex with (and a lot of the men, too, although they would probably not say so), place him in a context that allows him to sing and dance, be "funny" and charismatic, and express retrograde, defiantly adolescent male attitudes, all while surrounded by teenage girls in bikinis. The women would watch and think "Ah yes, but I’m the one who could tame him" (which is the secret that drives the narrative of Spinout), the men would think "Finally, my secret fears and desires expressed cinematically," everyone would be entertained, and, most importantly, everyone from sixteen to sixty would leave the movie wanting to go have sex. (If you think I’m joking, I’m not — there is a beautiful scene mid-way through Spinout where Elvis — er, Mike — convinces an elderly couple to lend him their house by showing them, in nothing flat, that their marriage is secretly a simmering cauldron of sexual desire and that they should immediately go on vacation to rediscover their love.) (The elderly woman in the scene is played by no less a personage than Una Merkel.)

I say, somebody write that script, find that star and make that movie. I nominate Hugh Jackman.


42 Responses to “Family Movie Night: Spinout”
  1. Am I the only one who wanted to see Trent Reznor and his band have to tangle with wacky scuba-diving hippies while trying to find sunken treasure?

    You are not alone.

    • laminator_x says:

      I’m envisioning Closer as the score to a beach-bonfire makeout scene.

    • Todd says:

      Of course, Trent Reznor wouldn’t necessarily have to stick to the Elvis formula — he would, most likely, make a series of dark musical suspense thrillers, all gory as hell and supernatural and icky, each trying to top the last for a level of suffocating suspense and godlessness.

      Come to think of it, that sounds like a great idea for a genre — the horror musical. Sweeney Todd comes close, but it’s still wall-to-wall Sondheim.

      • It wouldn’t surprise me at all to find out that Rob Zombie had thought of this, but no studio would back it.

      • djscman says:

        As long as the horror musicals are better–in story, music, and acting– than “Repo! The Genetic Opera”. Blech! Not even Paris Hilton could save that one (though, sadly, she was one of the brightest points in that dark morass of suck).

    • You are not alone.

      Well, not any more.

  2. Would 8-Mile count as a man-usical?

    • Todd says:

      8 Mile is both a man-usical and the start of an excellent Eminem Movie genre. Unfortunately, one that never fledged.

      • laminator_x says:

        Therin lies the problem with the semi-autobiagraphical struggle up-from-the-bottom film. A sequel about being discovered and mentored by Dr. Dre leading to humongous success just wouldn’t have the same resonance.

        Now, you could write a movie where the protagonist B-Rabbit finds that the success for which he struggled does little to soothe the rage that burns within him and that only by facing down his family issues could he ever have what he really wants, to live happily ever after in the family unit he never had (with perhaps some symbolic allusions to the derelict house they burned in 8-Mile).

        • Todd says:

          Elvis Presley’s Loving You is his 8 Mile — a glamorized version of the star’s beginning. After that, of course, Elvis went on to make thirty or so Elvis Movies. If Eminem took the success of 8 Mile and went on to make a string of comedies about haunted ranches and rapping speedboat drivers, he’d be just fine.

          Of course, that would mean Eminem would have to still be popular.

  3. stormwyvern says:

    I have to admit that I’d never heard of this movie before. I guess I’m not as up on Elvis movies as I should be.

    From the screenshot you’ve provided and your comment that it marks the end of the film, I assume that the story finishes with all three women realizing that Mike/Elvis will never be ready to settle down and turn their attentions to men who may not be as grade A dreamy, but are more agreeable to marriage, as evidence by the three brides and grooms apparently all getting married at once. So the women are all happy and Elvis/Mike is still a carefree and eligible bachelor, free to wander the world and have romantic encounters with more women, maybe even YOU. (“You” used here to mean the target teenage girl audience, not necessarily Mr. Alcott or anyone else reading this who is not a teenage girl or interested in a romantic encounter with Elvis.)

    • laminator_x says:

      Sadly, my dreams of a romantic encounter with Elvis were dashed long ago.

    • Todd says:

      You’re close — Elvis “takes charge” and forces each woman to marry their appropriate suitor — he knows best, in the end, what is right for everyone. In the end, he turns from helpless victim to omnipotent god — essentially, he takes off his disguise and reveals himself to be Elvis Presley.

      • popebuck1 says:

        Technically, this is known as an “Elvis ex machina.”

      • stormwyvern says:

        I’ve given this a lot of thought (probably more thought than I would give the entire movie if I actually saw it) and I’ve come to the conclusion that this is totally necessary to keep Elvis/Mike a “good guy.” If he doesn’t do anything to discourage these women from pursuing him and refocus them on more appropriate targets, he’s just a jerk, stringing them along when he can’t and won’t provide them with the kind of commitment they desire. The women can’t just lose interest in Elvis on their own; that would undermine the power of Elvis. There’s no other way to give the film its required happy ending, keep Elvis single, and maintain the idea that women simply cannot resist Elvis unless he turn his all powerful charms to the task of directing their attentions elsewhere.

        • Todd says:

          The plotting of Spinout hints at this idea, but can’t realistically produce it — therefore, Elvis/Mike simply has to make the decision and enforce it, and the other characters will fall into line due to the strength of his will. As an audience, we buy it because, after all, in real life Elvis got absolutely anything he wanted in copious amounts — ordering the marriages of three couples, whether they’re realistically attracted to one another or not, seems perfectly within his powers.

  4. curt_holman says:

    “Which made me wonder: where are the musicals for men?”

    Apart from the contemporary chick-flick musicals like Mamma Mia, I think that the “musician biopic” — Ray, Walk the Line, etc. — sort of occupies the same terrain as conventional musicals used to.

    And then there’s Catherine Zeta-Jones singing “I’m gonna rouge my knees and roll my stockings down” in Chicago

  5. laminator_x says:

    Heartbreak Hotel remains my favorite Elvis movie, despite not actually having elvis in it. It speaks to both what is good and bad about Elvis, treating the King lovingly without pulling any punches.

  6. urbaniak says:

    man-usical s/b dude-sical

  7. Anonymous says:

    The Spinout Soundtrack

    The best thing about Spinout was a song that appeared on its soundtrack (but not in the movie): a cover of Bob Dylan’s “Tomorrow is a Long Time.” Dylan later told an interviewer, “Elvis recorded a song of mine. That’s the one recording I treasure most.”

    • Todd says:

      Re: The Spinout Soundtrack

      “Tomorrow is a Long Time” is one of a number of “bonus” songs that were included on Elvis soundtrack LPs over the years. And, as any Elvis enthusiast will tell you, there is a great artistic crime hidden in this choice.

      Elvis considered songs like “Tomorrow is a Long Time” to be his real work of the 1960s, but with three movies to do every year, there wasn’t space on the release calender to put out many “real” Elvis Presley albums. Instead, tracks like “Tomorrow is a Long Time” had to be thrown onto soundtrack LPs that would otherwise be too short for release, even by 1960s LP standards.

      Because of this, people have the sense of Elvis Presley kind of just sleepwalking through the 1960s, when in fact he was delving deeper into his project of melding country, blues and gospel together. It’s just that all that valuable material had to take a back seat to movies about Elvis singing to dogs in a helicopter.

  8. numbereleven says:

    I have never seen an Elvis movie, but the sheer idea of them just baffles and intrigues me. I have a feeling if I delved into this absurdity, I’d just never stop.

    • Todd says:

      If you’re ever interested, I could tell you when to safely stop.

      Here is a helpful guide.

      • stormwyvern says:

        Fascinating. How exactly does one become an Elvis specialist?

        I’ll admit that my eyesight is not great, but it seems that a good number of the Elvis movie posters emphasize Elvis’s name to the exclusion of virtually everything else. At a reduced size, I’m close to concluding that one of the films is actually called “Elvis Elvis Elvis Elvis.” Which it probably might as well have been.

        • Todd says:

          The poster design, like everything else, was devised by Col Tom Parker, to sell Elvis, rather like one sells peanut butter.

          He was an evil, evil man.

  9. djscman says:

    Do the Trey Parker/Matt Stone/Marc Shaiman vehicles count as dude-sicals? You’ve got catchy numbers, graphic violence, lots of swearing, and explicit sex scenes (even if they’re marionettes).

    • Todd says:

      I haven’t seen Team America, but the South Park movie is one of the best musicals of the past decade.

      • djscman says:

        Well, I recommend Team America. Unlike Bigger Longer and Uncut the characters rarely perform showstopping numbers (with the exception of Kim Jong Il), but the songs make cozy nests in your soul, never to leave. The plot is…unlikely, even stupid. The plotting, however, precisely mirrors and skewers formula conventions, as when late in act II, the protagonist cries out, “I’ve hit rock bottom!” It’s starting to show its age in this brave, post-Bush era, but it’s still enjoyable. And not for kids.

  10. ndgmtlcd says:

    My favorite Elvis movie is “Lilo and Stitch”. But I have to admit that while I’ve read a lot about Elvis movies I’ve only seen three of them, long ago. You have tickled my curiosity with “Spinout”. While reading what you had to say about it the music from “Speed Racer” kept popping up in my mind. I think I’ll try to convince an innocent friend to see the two of them (“Speed Racer” and “Spinout”) with me.

    • Todd says:

      If your primary goal is to link Elvis and Speed Racer, you might do better with Speedway, which is perfectly enjoyable and more purely about auto racing. And co-stars Nancy Sinatra.

      • ndgmtlcd says:

        My primary goal is having two movies that can be dissected by an extremely Cartesian mind. You’ve given me the logic fundamentals for “Spinout” and Kazu Kibuishi gave me the logic fundamentals for “Speed Racer”.

        You see, it’s like two Parisians dicussing “Visit to a Small Planet” and “The Court Jester”. It’s all about solid deconstruction and analysis to the point of sillyness, while keeping a straight face.

        • Todd says:

          You might do better to bring a Manichean philosophy to Speed Racer, as it is very concerned about light and dark.

          Or an objectivist reading — they are both quite bad and should be destroyed.

  11. moroccomole says:

    I recommend that you write said musical, once you’re done with superheroes.

  12. Anonymous says:

    Monsters, Inc.

    Yes! Please, please, please do some of your brilliant analyses on Pixar movies. Monsters, Inc. and the whole lot!

  13. One could make the argument that Bowie was doing a live-action musical during his entire Ziggy Stardust era.